The Country House Revealed – Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire

Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire - east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)
Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire – east front (Image: dykwia / flickr)

If asked to name the largest and grandest country houses in Britain, many would list obvious candidates; Chatsworth, Belvoir, Castle Howard, Petworth, but few would name Wentworth Woodhouse in Yorkshire, the house featured in the next episode of Dan Cruickshank’s ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [Tuesday 31 May – 21:00 – BBC2]. One of the largest private homes in Europe, this leviathan slowly slipped into obscurity since family feuds and a vindictive Socialist minister caused the house to decline from being the greatest to being neglected.  Now, after ten years of hard work by the current owner, the house makes its first steps back towards the public stage – but is the price of the resurrection perhaps too high?

Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)
Wentworth Woodhouse - west front (Image: Matthew Beckett)

One of the triumphs of Wentworth Woodhouse is that the design of the house is coherent and powerful despite its size – extending to 606ft from tower-to-tower, to create the longest front in the country*.  Yet, the house is also one of two sides, the grand Classical east front, and the earlier, Baroque west front.  To have a house of such contrasting styles might indicate very separate plans of construction, yet a plan of proposed works dating from before 1725 and possibly as early as 1716, shows that the Earls Fitzwilliam had every intention to build on such a scale, with just the design itself changing.  The west side, the luxurious, decorated Baroque face, was raised between 1724-28 was long thought to be to a design by Ralph Tunnicliffe, a local architect who had worked on Wortley Hall and Calke Abbey, Derbyshire (1722). Yet, his work bears more familiarity with the Classical east front – so who designed the first stage?

Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)
Beningbrough Hall, Yorkshire (Image: nickrick90 / flickr)

Richard Hewlings in an article in Country Life magazine (17 February 2010) makes a solid case for the work being by the very well-regarded York architect, William Thornton (b. c.1670 – d.1721), who had previously worked on the joinery at Castle Howard, and designed Beningborough Hall. The latter of these (according to Colvin) showed a familiarity with Roman Baroque architecture as shown in Rossi’s ‘Studio d’architecttura civile‘ (pub. 1702-21).  Hewlings argues that because Beningbrough can be attributed to Thornton and that the same Rossi-inspired architectural elements can be seen in both houses, it makes Thornton (having definitely owned a copy of Rossi) the one most likely to have designed Wentworth Woodhouse – with his early death contributing towards his obscurity.

Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'
Wanstead House III, Essex - proposed design by Colen Campbell as shown in 'Vitruvius Britannicus'

So Tunnicliffe designed the east front. Well, mostly. His 1734 design can very clearly be seen as derived from that most important of Palladian houses, Wanstead House, in Essex (built 1715 – dem. 1822).  The original architect of Wanstead, Colen Campbell, produced three designs (known as I, II, and III) which drew on the form of Castle Howard but stripped of much of the architectural verbosity which so offended the more austere Palladians. This design was to form the backbone for several generations of large country houses particularly in the boom years of the 1730s and -40s.  Yet, even though work started in 1731, in 1735 the Earl of Malton thought it best to have Tunnicliffe’s design reviewed by a greater authority, that of Lord Burlington, the ‘chief’ Palladian.  This proved timely as Tunnicliffe died in 1736 and so responsibility passed to Henry Flitcroft, a Burlington protege.  Flitcroft’s external alterations were relatively minor; adding pedestals to the portico columns, changing the shape of the attic windows, (he also provided designs for several rooms) but his engagement there was to last until work finished in 1770.

One obvious question is just why the house was so large? Beyond the usual demonstration of the scale of the family’s wealth and status, the house also had to be of such a size to accommodate the vast entertainments which the Watson-Wentworth’s needed to hold occasionally as part of their seduction of such a large and sparsely populated county.  Up to a 1,000 locals – nobles, gentry and simple gentleman alike – might be invited, with each given a ticket indicating which room they were to go to (and, by implication, their social status).  Another, seemingly more petty, reason was that Lord Malton’s father had inherited the estate in 1695; much to the shock and annoyance of another (politically opposed) relative, Thomas Wentworth, who lived nearby at Stainborough.  He responded by enlarging his own seat, Wentworth Castle (now a sadly much altered training college), in a grand style, ensuring that Lord Malton couldn’t be seen to ‘lose’.

The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)
The Marble Hall, Wentworth Woodhouse (Image: (c) Country Life Picture Library)

One of the most breath-taking aspects of this need to impress are the interiors; boasting 25 ‘fine’ rooms of the highest quality, whereas by comparison, Buckingham Palace has 20 of a similar standard, Blenheim around eight, Castle Howard perhaps three or four.  These rooms are centred around the glorious central Marble Hall; 60ft square, 40ft high, with rooms leading off to the left and right including the Great Dining Room, the Van Dyck Room, the State Dressing Room and the Long Gallery.

That the Fitzwilliam family no longer live in Wentworth Woodhouse is one of the great sadnesses of the many families forced from their ancestral homes.   At one point this grand house boasted some of the finest furniture, a priceless collection of art including statues  and many paintings by such artists as Van Dyck, Reynolds, Mytens, Hoppner, Lawrence, Claude Lorraine, and a major collection of Stubbs’s work.  Yet, for all the wealth and power, it was founded on primogeniture and coal – both of which undermined the house in their own way.

The births of previous Earls Fitzwilliam had usually taken place in Wentworth Woodhouse and had been witnessed.  However the birth of the 7th Earl in the 1890s took place in the wilds of Canada for reasons which have never been fully explained, leading to members of the family levelling allegations that a settlers son had been swapped at birth for the daughter the Countess was thought to have really given birth to.  This eventually led to a split in the family as to where the title and the vast inheritance should descend.  With primogeniture determining it must go to the eldest legitimate male heir, this was only settled with a court case in 1952 between two brothers.  The ‘winner’ was the younger son who subsequently married an older lady, and therefore never producing an heir. On his death in 1979, the long title of the Earls Fitzwilliam died out – though not before the last Earl had a huge bonfire of 16 tonnes of family papers to permanently cloak their history.  The estate is now held by Lady Juliet Tadgell nee Wentworth-Fitzwilliam with the family still owning 80,000-acres of Yorkshire and 50,000-acres of Cambridgeshire – and the art collection.

Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)
Mining at Wentworth Woodhouse (house circled)

It was the coal that physically undermined the house – both above ground and below. The post-war Socialist government was determined to break-up what it saw as the privileged elite.  One particularly bigoted ideologue was Manny Shinwell, then the Minister for Fuel and Power, decided that as part of his campaign of class warfare he would mine the coal under the park and house – even when told it was low-grade and not worth the effort.  He also ignored the pleas of the local miners and their representatives who had always enjoyed excellent relations with the Fitzwilliams who were widely regarded as one of the best mine owners in the country.  Shinwell’s workers destroyed the park which the miners had enjoyed for years and also dumped the spoil to within yards of the house.  Rather than live there the family moved out – though not before securing the use of the house as a teacher training college which no doubt saved the house from demolition.

However, the mining might yet save the house – though the proposed solution contains considerable risk.  Part of the mining deep underground left a column to support the house – but it wasn’t large enough leading to subsidence which has caused parts of the house to sink by up to 3ft. The house was bought for just £1.5m (£7 per sq ft!) by London architect Clifford Newbold in 1999 and he and his family have spent the last decade carefully restoring the house in conjunction with the conservation architects Purcell Triton Miller and engineers Arup.  Now the family are ready to launch legal action to secure £100m in compensation for the negligent mining under the house.  Using this money, they will obtain further funding to develop the huge stables (built by John Carr in 1768) as office space and also “...two new contemporary buildings that replace the former college accommodation and will support the Stables office building through provision of further office accommodation. These sunken ‘green roofed’ buildings will be designed so that they do not have any detrimental visual impact on the open spaces of the landscape of Wentworth Woodhouse.” (from the official press release).  This can be understood and can be supported so long as the commitment to the minimise the impact to the estate (which is now just 90-acres) is successful.

What gives some concern are the plans for the main house as a “…publicly accessible restored museum to the central and grandest rooms, as well as a 70 suite luxury hotel and spa to the remainder.“. This will necessarily have a significant impact on the structure of the house – and I’m not convinced it’s the entirely right plan.  This house should be the Chatsworth of Yorkshire – a grand house, filled with art and life – and though the plans for the museum will be put into action, there is no word as to whether the rooms will be furnished?  If so, by who?  Will the V&A have an outpost? Perhaps I miss the idea of a family living there, using these rooms – though where to find a family able to take on such a monumental task? Just imagine if the Fitzwilliams had been able to move back in? I do wish the Newbold family every possible success but only if the plans respect the history and importance of the house and it’s not just used as an architectural prop for a multi-use residential, hotel and office space development.

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* – that it was the longest was the subject of an amusing bet in 1750 between Sir John Bland of Kippax Park and Lord Rockingham (as the Watson-Wentworths had now become) as to whose house was longest – Sir John lost by just 6ft.  Kippax Park was later demolished and the area open-cast mined.

Many more images of the house, grounds and stables can be seen in the Country Life Picture Library: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [countrylifeimages]

More about the house and estate: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse‘ [wikipedia]

Official website: ‘The Country House Revealed‘ [BBC2]

More about life in Wentworth Woodhouse: Part 1 and Part 2 [countryhousereader]

Local news report: ‘Wentworth Woodhouse: Newbold family bagged mansion for just £1.5m‘ [thestar]

Ripples of Palladio: Forcett Hall, Yorkshire for sale

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire (Image: GSC Chartered Surveyors)

For those of us who love our country houses, the weekly delight of the new Country Life magazine are the many pages of houses for sale.  Although the space is usually dominated by the major players such as Knight Frank, Savills etc, a particular joy is when you discover, tucked away with a smaller agent, an especially good house which deserves to be better known.

One recent house which falls neatly into this category is Forcett Hall, near Richmond in North Yorkshire.  Grade-I listed, this house forms part of the spread northwards of the fashionable ideas of Lord Burlington and the Palladians. ‘Palladianism’ (as it became known) formed a new movement and became the dominant architectural taste from around 1710 until around 1750 but which is still very popular and influential today.

The Palladians were largely influenced by the work of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio (b.1508 – d.1580) whose work, particularly around Vicenza, drew heavily on the ancient classical form of Roman architecture.  The ideas were spread to Britain initially through the work of Inigo Jones, a multi-talented theatrical designer to the Court who also became the Royal Surveyor of Works which gave him the platform to spread the ideas of Italian Renaissance architectural classicism to these shores, starting with the Queen’s House in Greenwich, London.

Wanstead House, Essex
Wanstead House, Essex

Key to the spread of these new ideas were two books, volumes 1 & 2 of ‘Vitruvius Britannicus‘, which took the form of a folio of one hundred classical buildings, published by the architect Colen Campbell.  Campbell also created one of the most important buildings of early Palladianism, Wanstead House in Essex, (dem. 1824) which re-interpreted the form of Vanbrugh‘s Baroque Castle Howard but in a new, more austere architectural language.  This was then followed by Wilbury House, Wiltshire, designed and built in 1710 by William Benson who succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as Surveyor of Works.  Wanstead inspired several derivatives in the years following its completion including Moor Park, Hertfordshire (1720s by Thornhill and Leoni), Wentworth Woodhouse, Yorkshire (alterations of 1733 by Flitcroft), Nostell Priory, Yorkshire (1733 by Paine) and Prior Park, Wiltshire (1735 by John Wood I).

Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)
Chiswick House, Middlesex (Image: curry15 / flickr)

Richard Boyle (b.1694 – d.1753), the 3rd Lord Burlington and 4th Earl of Cork, played a  significant role in firmly establishing Palladianism as a movement through his own influence, patronage and his circle of followers.  Burlington employed Colen Campbell to remodel his London house (taking over the work started by his rival James Gibbs) but Burlington was also a skilled architect, building the beautiful Chiswick House, in west London, in 1729, not so much as a home (it contains only state rooms) but as an architectural statement of his new principles.

One of Burlington’s protégés who assisted him as clerk of works on some of his earlier projects was Daniel Garrett (b.? – d.1753).  A measure of his competency can be seen in a letter sent in 1737 by Sir Thomas Robinson to Lord Carlisle regarding proposed works to complete the Mausoleum at Castle Howard:

“My Lord Burlington has a much better opinion of Mr Garrett’s knowledge and judgement than of Mr Flitcroft’s or any person whatever, except Mr [William] Kent…”

Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)
Stanwick Park, Yorkshire - dem. 1923 (Image: Lost Heritage)

However, despite his skill, Garrett was dismissed from his role in the Office of Works in 1737 for ‘not attending his duty’.  This was probably related to his absences caused by his own growing architectural practice in the north of England.  In 1735 he was remodelling Wallington Hall, Northumberland for Sir Walter Blackett, in 1736 he was at Castle Howard, and in 1737 he was working for Lord Derby, and between 1739-40 working for Sir Hugh Smithson, Bart, (later 1st Duke of Northumberland) on the rebuilding of Stanwick Park, Yorkshire (sadly demolished in 1923). He was later to work at other distinguished houses including Raby Castle in Co. Durham, Warwick Castle, Northumberland House in London (dem. 1874), Horton House in Northamptonshire (dem. 1936), Uppark in Sussex, Kippax Park in Yorkshire (dem. 1956-59) and most notably Foots Cray Place in Kent (dem. 1950).

This gives a measure of Garrett’s skill and his client list.  It was following his work at Stanwick that he started work at Forcett Hall in 1740 – though there does seem to be some debate as to what he did.  A list at Alnwick Castle says that the house is by ‘Mr Garrett for Mr Shuttleworth’, the latter being Richard Shuttleworth, the local MP who commissioned the house, whose family owned the estate between 1582-1785.  Although the estate agents state that the design of the house can be attributed to him as a rebuild following a fire in 1726, Howard Colvin thought him an unoriginal architect but skilled in providing handsome houses and instead only gives him a now demolished part of the east wing, the lodges and park entrance, the ceiling of the saloon (copied from the dining room at Chiswick House), and the grotto.

Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck
Forcett Hall, Yorkshire - as drawn by Samuel Buck

So if he didn’t design the main block, here’s an alternative theory; the house wasn’t completely burnt down in 1726 but was just seriously damaged, and Garrett gave a Palladian flavour to the house as part of the restoration.  The south front of the original house was drawn by Samuel Buck in his usual technically flawed idiosyncratic style (see right).  This is the same view in the picture of the house at the top of the post but the current house lacks the projecting wings but it does share the exact same form of three storeys over a semi-sunken basement.  Looking at the main house now (there’s an excellent picture on flickr: Forcett Hall – and also see the paintings in the comments), it could be argued that the elements of Palladianism – Ionic pilasters, quoins, external staircase have merely been applied to the house rather than forming a fundamental part of the design.  By excavating the semi-sunken basement (note the level of the lawn to the left), Garrett creates not only the appearance of a piano nobile, but also creates the space to add the staircase which is also in a typical Palladian style (and appears to be a modified form of the one at Stourhead as shown in ‘Vitruvius Britannicus) – but which seems to be an addition rather than a focus.  Elements such as the pilasters with their Scamozzi Ionic capitals almost seem to be copied from the entrance front of Marble Hill House in Twickenham (built 1724-29 by Roger Morris). Conversely, the north (entrance) front of Forcett is almost a different house; looking far more like an Italian villa than a Yorkshire country house (and I’m sure I recognise it from somewhere…).  Or perhaps I’m completely wrong and it is a new house, the design of which exposed the limitations of the architect.

This is a fascinating house, well worthy of it’s grade-I listing, though the photos on flickr show it’s in need of some care and restoration to fully bring out the beauty of this wonderful house.  The interior boasts some fine plasterwork and the house is set in a perfect small park which includes a 17-acre lake, no public footpaths and a grotto.  If someone is looking for a house with privacy but also a history to be explored there are few better houses available.

Property details: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors] – comes with over 230-acres, guide price £5.5m.

Property brochure [PDF]: ‘Forcett Hall‘ [GSC Chartered Surveyors]

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British and Irish Stately Homes blog – more property for sale

This is also a good point to highlight another blog you should find interesting.  British and Irish Stately Homes is written by Andrew who is a frequent contributor to the comments in this parish.   Featuring houses for sale, TV programmes involving country houses, books on the topic plus much more it covers some more of the areas I just don’t have time to!  Do bookmark it, subscribe and let Andrew know if you spot anything you think ought to be added.

Back from the brink: country houses rescued from dereliction

Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)
Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Stephens Pictures / flickr)

One often forgotten aspect of local newspapers is their ability to draw on their archives and provide reminders of local history. The local paper frequently played an important part in publicising the goings on at the ‘big house’, reporting the successes and scandals with usually equal vigour.  A recent article in the Northamptonshire ‘Evening Telegraph‘ reflects not only on the collapse of the Volta tower, built by the owner of Finedon Hall as a memorial to his drowned son, but also the later dereliction and near loss of the house itself as it slipped from dereliction ever closer to demolition.  Yet, unlike so many hundreds of other country houses which were lost, Finedon Hall was one of the many which have been saved.

c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)
c1980 - Finedon Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Evening Telegraph)

Finedon Hall has 17th-century origins but its current style is the result of what Mark Girouard called “eccentric chunky” alterations by E.F. Law for the owner, William Mackworth-Dolben, in the 1850s.  Built in a Tudor-Gothic style in the local ironstone (which was quarried on their land) the house passed through the family until the last of the family, the spinster Ellen Mackworth-Dolben died in 1912.  With no heirs, the estate was sold off in parcels with the house passing through a number of owners before being bought by developers in 1971.  For over a decade they allowed the house to deteriorate until just ten years later parts of the roof had gone and the exterior was in serious danger of collapse.  Luckily, more enlightened developers stepped in and during the 1990s the house (and estate buildings) were converted into apartments.

One of the largest houses to be converted in this way was Thorndon Hall in Essex.  One of James Paine‘s largest commissions, this Palladian mansion was originally built for the 9th Lord Petre in 1764-7 but was gutted by fire in 1876, leaving only the eastern end of the main block and the eastern pavilion intact.  The Petre family lived in the reduced house until 1919 when they leased it and the estate to a golf club and they moved back to the original family home, Ingatestone Hall.  The house remained a largely ruined shell until it was sold for development in 1976 but was then bought in 1978 by a local builder who created a total of 84 apartments in the house, pavilions and estate buildings.

Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)
Ecton Hall, Northamptonshire (Image: Conway Collections / Courtauld Institute of Art)

One of the most accomplished and intelligent of the developers to convert country houses is Kit Martin who has saved several houses and including Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  The house was largely remodelled by Ambrose Isted in 1755 in the then relatively new ‘Gothic-Revival‘ style (Horace Walpole had only started his work at Strawberry Hill in the early 1750s and it’s considered one of the earliest houses in the new style).  The house was filled with fine art, books and furniture and passed through the Isteds and then, by marriage, to the Sothebys who owned it until the last died, childless, in 1952. At this point the rot set in; builders called in to remove a large kitchen extension also, apparently, stole the valuable lead from the roof leading to dry and wet rot. Alexander Creswell, visiting in the 1980s, described the scene:

“The rich ochre stone of the garden front is engulfed in Virginia creeper, and sparkles of broken glass litter the terrace.  Inside the house, the drawing room fireplace rises above a heap of plaster that the roof has brought down…At one end of the house the winter storms have toppled a gable, which in falling has crushed the fragile camellia-house below; one surviving camellia blooms among the rubble of ironstone – the only flourishing vestige of Ecton’s former glory” – ‘The Silent Houses of Britain

However, by 1989 Kit Martin had finished his work and the new apartments were advertised for sale in Country Life; a remarkable rescue for this almost lost house.

Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)
Gunton Park, Norfolk (Image: Broads Marshman / flickr)

Perhaps Kit’s finest work is Gunton Park in Norfolk.  The house was originally the work of Matthew Brettingham, a competent, if sometimes unimaginative, Palladian who had first achieved recognition with his work executing William Kent and Lord Burlington‘s designs for Holkham Hall.  This work brought him to the attention of other aristocratic clients, particularly in Norfolk, including Sir William Harbord who commissioned him in 1745 to design a replacement at Gunton for an earlier house which had burnt down three years earlier.  Brettingham’s house was to be significantly enlarged c.1785 to designs by James Wyatt.

Sadly, fire struck again; in 1882 the Brettingham portion of the house, including the fine rooms, was almost completely gutted and remained a forlorn shell for the next 100 years.  Kit Martin bought the house in 1981 and sensitively created well-proportioned apartments in the remaining wings. The front of the Brettingham wing (pictured above) become one large house separated from the main block by a large void created by the fire but still linked by the retained façades.  It’s not just the house which has been rejuvenated; the parkland – nearly 1,000 acres – has also been bought or, through agreements, reunited (and in the process winning an award from Country Life magazine) to restore the setting of this elegant house.

Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)
Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Peter I. Vardy / Wikipedia)

It’s rare for a house, once in a state of dereliction, to be restored as a single family home, yet thankfully it does happen. Barlaston Hall is one example of this – and it’s rescue was down to some bold decisions by the campaigning charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and their President, the architectural writer Marcus Binney, who was offered this elegant house for £1!  Barlaston Hall is, according to Binney, almost certainly the work of the architect Sir Robert Taylor (b.1714 – d.1788).   The house is a relatively unadorned but sophisticated house, enlivened with unusual octagonal and diamond glazing bars in the sash windows; Taylor’s response to the popularity of Chinese Chippendale furniture and a general fashion for the Rococo.

Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)
Dining Room - Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire (Image: Christopher Dalton)

However, the house had been built on several coal seams which threatened the house when they were mined in the 20th-century.  Structurally unsound, it had been abandoned and vandalised but SAVE stepped in to challenge Wedgewood’s application to demolish.  At the subsequent public inquiry, the National Coal Board threw down the challenge that SAVE could buy the house for £1 provided it completed restoration and repairs within six years.  SAVE swung into action, raising money through grants and by forcing the NCB to meet its obligations (which it did after some shameful attempts to avoid doing so), and the house was stabilised, restored, and subsequently sold to a couple who completed the interior and it remains a family home.

Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr)
Piercefield House, Monmouthshire (Image: darkcell / flickr) - click to see large version

Sadly there are many country houses still at risk today – though the rescues also continue. Pell Well Hall in Shropshire, a wonderful house by Sir John Soane built in 1822-28, has been restored as a shell after decades of neglect, vandalism and fire, and now requires someone with vision to complete the process.  Bank Hall in Lancashire was featured in the original ‘Restoration’ TV series but has continued to deteriorate with sections collapsing.  However, planning permission is being sought to convert the house into apartments which will enable restoration of the house. One house however has, inexplicably (well, to me), remained unrestored; Piercefield House in Monmouthshire.  This beautiful house, again by Sir John Soane, became uninhabited and was mistreated during WWII by the American troops stationed nearby who used the façade for target practice.  The house, set in 129 acres, has been for sale for several years but despite the architectural provenance and the wonderful setting it remains unsold.

The story of the country house has always been one of changing fortunes, which sadly led to many being demolished. The difference now we have heritage legislation is that whereas before houses were often simply demolished, now their plight is likely to drag on for many years.  Restoration is often the best course of action, preserving as much of the original fabric as possible, and ideally as a single family home, though the less palatable options of conversion are always to be preferred to the complete loss of another of our historic houses.

News story: ‘Fascinating history of Hall‘ [Evening Telegraph]

So you can’t afford a whole house: country house apartments

Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)
Charlton Park, Wiltshire (Image: Chesterton Humberts)

Country houses were always a community with not only the family but also a significant number of staff.  Yet as these houses became more uneconomical and houses emptied, large sections often lay dormant, until the family moved out and, in darker times, the house might be demolished.  However, conversion of the house into multiple individual homes offered a route to not only save the house but ensure that it was lived in rather than just used as a conference centre or hotel.  These apartments are now highly prized and offer the fascinating possibility of living in a grand stately home without many of the burdens – but only if it was converted sensitively and the setting preserved, which sadly isn’t always the case.

The idea of converting country houses into smaller, more manageable units is a fairly modern practice, largely since World War II, though some smaller conversions had taken place previously.  A pioneer was the now defunct Country Houses Association which was set up in 1955 to provide shared accommodation, with communal meals, for well-to-do retirees in good health in a style to which many residents had formerly been accustomed. The first house to be bought and converted, in 1956, was the red-brick Elizabethan Danny in Sussex. Next, in 1959, was the grade-I listed Aynhoe Park in Northamptonshire, a Soanian masterpiece with an elegant central block framed by two wings (though this has now been converted back into being a single home).  These set the pattern which was successfully repeated for seven other houses, some of which remain as retirement communities despite the collapse of the CHA scheme.

Around the same time, Christopher Buxton formed ‘Period and Country Houses Ltd’ which focused on creating independent units within the house and estate buildings.  Buxton had several notable successes such as the restoration of Kirtlington Park in Oxfordshire, keeping the splendid central portion as his own home, and also Charlton Park in Wiltshire, seat of the Earls of Suffolk, who currently still live in a portion of the house and own the 4,500-acre estate surrounding it.

In the 1950s and 60s, sale adverts for country houses often included the phrase “eminently suitable for conversion”.  Other developers could now see the potential and developed their own schemes – but with little heritage protection they often did more harm than good.  For them the key to getting the maximum profit was to cram in as many units as possible within the house and estate buildings before trying to built in the parkland.  This sadly meant that the grandest rooms in the houses – ballrooms, libraries etc, – would be crudely sub-divided, wreaking their proportions and destroying decorative details.  Sometimes developers simply developed the houses in the estate and then neglected to restore the main house, often citing the mounting costs of the work.

Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)
Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (Image: Cotswold District Council)

A sad example of where the house has been compromised through too many units is at Northwick Park in Gloucestershire, a grade-I listed house of 1686, with later work by Lord Burlington in 1728-30 for Sir John Rushout.  An architecturally interesting house with a Classical east front topped with a decorated pediment, which contrasts with Burlington’s work on the east front, which was later, oddly, given shaped gables sometime between 1788-1804.   Empty from 1976 with significant thefts of chimneys and doorcases and general deterioration, it was then bought including just 19-acres in 1986 by a local developer for £2m.  With repairs estimated at the time to come to at least £1.5m, the local authority permitted some enabling development totalling 68 new units – with just six in the main house itself.  However, the new properties had to be sited within the footprint of existing estate buildings leading to an overcrowded development with the house becoming almost an architectural ornament, lost in the rest of the residential development.

Many of the most successful and sensitive conversions have been undertaken by Kit Martin, a gifted architect who has saved some wonderful houses and been instrumental, with assiduous promotion by Marcus Binney of SAVE Britain’s Heritage, in demonstrating that it is possible to convert a house without compromising it.  His particular skill was in dividing the houses vertically, rather than horizontally, which gave each residence (as they always are in KM’s developments – never apartments) a range of rooms and usually included one of the fine rooms.  Starting with Dingley Hall, a beautiful but terribly derelict house at risk of complete loss, he has worked on a number of significant houses including The Hazells in Bedfordshire, Burley-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire, and Ecton Hall in Northamptonshire.  His finest work, however, has been at Gunton Park in Norfolk, grade-II* listed house of 1742 designed by Matthew Brettingham with later work c1785 by Samuel and William Wyatt.

Formerly seat of Lord Suffield it had suffered a serious fire in 1872 leaving a large section of the main house as a burnt out shell.   Fortunately for Mr Martin, extensive Georgian estate buildings had been constructed in anticipation of future work to enlarge the house which never happened, leaving him with a perfect opportunity to create a new community.  He then proceeded to vertically divide the main house into four large 5,000 sq ft houses, with other smaller houses created in the wings and outbuildings.  Having restored the house, he then sought to recreate the 1,500-acre parkland by William Gilpin and Humphrey Repton and has succeeded in re-acquiring over 1,000-acres and has been replanting over 6,000 trees – each one in the place originally marked out on Repton’s plan.

It’s not known in total how many country houses have been converted to multiple residences but it is probably at least between 40-50.  Many of these would otherwise likely have been demolished so conversion is preferable but only where it respects the existing architectural heritage and setting.  However, where successful, these fascinating properties allow the opportunity for those of lesser means to experience living in the grandeur of a stately home with the cost and responsibility of owning a whole one.


Examples of apartments currently for sale in country houses: